Asians must chart a course to avoid rocky ride ahead

Disputes over islands are sowing mistrust and risk sparking an unintended conflict

Our little boat bobbed about in the churning waters for several hours before we caught sight of the tiny island, 45km east of Singapore. A mere speck on the vast sea, it looked forlorn with its solitary lighthouse.

As we approached the rock, covered in bird droppings, it became clear how the island dubbed Pedra Branca (which means white rock) got its name.

A wave of emotions washed over me. Incredulousness, indignance and a sense of the sheer inanity of it all.

"This is what we are squabbling over?" I asked the captain of our crew, referring to the long-drawn dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over sovereignty of the island. "Afraid so," he replied sheepishly.

Yes, I was aware of the wider significance of it all. There was much at stake for both countries in the dispute, which threatened at times to turn nasty. But set against this was the tragedy of lost opportunities to build a better future for people on both sides of the Causeway.

Thankfully, wiser counsel prevailed and both countries agreed in 2003 to take their old dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and settle the matter using jaw-jaw instead of more unspeakable options. Eventually, in 2008, after a keenly contested hearing, the Court ruled in Singapore's favour, a verdict which leaders on both sides accepted with equanimity and good grace, allowing them to press on with cooperation on other fronts.

This happy outcome flashed back in my mind last week during a panel discussion I chaired at the FutureChina Global Forum, held at the Shangri-La Hotel, titled China-Asean: Managing a Complex Relationship.

Complex is a euphemism. Fraught, tricky or precarious might sum it up better.

The relationship is many-faceted. China is Asean's biggest trading partner, with trade reaching a record high of US$400.9 billion (S$507.1 billion) last year, up 10 per cent from the previous year. These countries are linked not only by commerce, but also common cultures and history. But set against the deepening ties are rising political tensions, chiefly from competing claims to a few island chains around the region.

Some of these islands have been disputed over for decades by several members of Asean. Even among these supposed partners, resolving the claims has proven a challenge. So, add to this mix a rising China, with its historically fraught relations with Japan, and the so-called "pivot" by the United States as it reorientates towards Asia, and the waters get a lot more choppy for all concerned.

At stake is not just national pride, but also access to presumed (it's never been proven because any talk of exploration by one country immediately provokes a strong reaction from others) rich stores of oil, gas and also fishing resources. Lamentably, the disputing countries have adopted a zero-sum, all-mine-or-nothing approach to these resources, leaving everyone worse off.

One of the panellists at the forum, Professor Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, summed up the present situation with an interesting paradox. China, he noted, is today no longer so weak that it has to simply accept the situation in the South China Sea as some other countries in the region view it. But, nor is it so powerful that others in the region have to accept its view of how the situation should be.

So, the region is in for a difficult period of transition, as all players adjust to the shifting political and economic tides.

A Code of Conduct on how to manage this and navigate the tricky waters ahead would help greatly. Thankfully, Asean and China agreed earlier this month to begin talks on this in September, after years of dithering over it.

Welcoming this, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, chairman of Malaysia's respected Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said that finding a way forward would call for mutual restraint and much goodwill.

Countries in the region should take a good, hard look at themselves, he said, and ponder if some of their actions were unhelpful to building trust and confidence. Without naming any fellow Asean members, he pointed to moves such as inviting companies from countries outside the region to embark on oil exploration, or making provocative remarks in public statements.

Joining in, editor-in-chief of the Jakarta Post Meidyatama Suryodiningrat threw a challenge to the business leaders in the audience. They could help by fostering even stronger economic and investment links among Asean and China, so that leaders on all sides would have to think many times about the economic downside for their own people before embarking on any aggressive adventures on the high seas.

Indeed, despite the complexities in this relationship, the panel members and audience seemed sanguine that the likelihood of a conflict breaking out in the region was low. There was just too much at stake.

In any case, someone noted, the risk of a flare-up in the South China Sea was considerably lower than it was further north, where tensions are also rising over maritime disputes between China, Japan and Korea. That seemed like scant consolation, since trouble in the north would soon spill over further south.

Indeed, given the tense relations and the proximity of fishing and military vessels out at sea, the reality is that we are one accident - or one nervous soldier's over-reaction - away from a major incident. Many conflicts begin not by design, but through an accident, misstep or miscalculation.

Thoughtful commentators are flagging this as a concern to be taken seriously. A chilling piece in Foreign Policy magazine by Dr Patrick Cronin, titled "Tell me how this starts?", outlined how an unintended conflict might arise on the Korean peninsula, before escalating into a regional conflict as a result of the internal dynamics and pressures faced by key players.

While his report was focused on Korea, its conclusions are applicable elsewhere too. He wrote: "The desire to show strength, the fear of looking weak, and the presence of tons of hardware provide more than enough tinder that a spark could start a conflagration. An accident - such as a straying missile, an incident at sea or in the air... could trigger an action-reaction cycle that could spiral out of control."

In similar vein, a cover story in the Economist magazine depicted a few rocky outcrops out at sea with the headline: "Could China and Japan really go to war over these?"

"Sadly, yes," was its answer in finer print at the bottom of the page.

It added: "Asia is too busy making money to have time for making war. But each time an island row flares up, attitudes harden and trust erodes.

"A century ago in Europe, years of peace and globalisation tempted leaders into thinking they could afford to play with nationalist fires without the risk of conflagration... China and its neighbours need to grasp how much damage the islands are in fact causing. Asia needs to escape from a descent into corrosive mistrust."

Many have trumpeted the rise of China and Asia, or the dawn of a Pacific century, as if this is an ineluctable certainty. But, to my mind, there is nothing inevitable about this. Asians are just as capable as anyone of allowing empty pride, sheer avarice or plain stupidity to override economic good sense.

Asia will prosper, and Asean with it, only if its leaders and people learn the lessons of the past, and are wise enough to rise above old rivalries to avoid stymying hopes of a better future. They will have to work together to find creative ways to resolve their differences peaceably and develop the region's resources collectively for the common good.

Unless we do so, we will all have to brace ourselves for a rough and rocky ride ahead.

warren@sph.com.sg